Conservative members must take back control of their Party
Matt Snape argues that the days of unaccountable governance of the Conservative Party by an out-of-touch Central Office must end. It is time for the Party's members to take back control.
Many local councillors paid the price on Thursday for May’s failure to deliver Brexit. Numerous media outlets have called for the Prime Minister to resign and the message is clear: May must go. But reflecting upon my own defeat, I have realised that a new leader will not solve the long-term fragmentation of party loyalties leaving the EU has caused. The Conservative Party must usher in a new age where members can (to coin a popular phrase) take back control of the party from CCHQ and its out-of-touch leadership.
As someone who has lost their council seat in a ward that traditionally returns two Conservative councillors, I have reflected upon the reasons why I lost. I live in a safe Conservative parliamentary seat and during the New Labour years, even Labour failed to make significant gains here. This mentality has encouraged a sense of complacency for years and for the first time, minor parties have challenged the Tories’ dominance in seats like mine.
In 2017, the Conservatives learnt that social media was an effective way of fighting elections. During my time as a councillor, I had an active Facebook page visible to residents in Facebook groups for my town. I also operated WhatsApp groups where I interacted with residents every day and responded to their queries quickly. I organised drop-in sessions where residents had the choice of seeing the police, a local housing association or myself about local issues regarding parking, bins and crime to name a few. I visited the homes of residents affected by crime and drank tea with them. I also met residents creating Neighbourhood Watch groups. I solved a significant parking issue in my ward, too. This is a record I am proud of. Considering crime seemed to be the biggest concern among my residents, I had positive news coverage in a ‘safe’ Tory seat for acting on an issue that I thought was most important to people. I campaigned hard, too.
Alas, this was not enough in a post-Brexit age. My Green rivals campaigned incredibly hard. But they also soaked up Remain and Leave voters in a traditionally safe Conservative ward and trounced me last Thursday. Remain voters no doubt chose them because they wanted to elect an anti-Brexit candidate, and Leave voters elected them because they were angry at the Tories’ failure to deliver Brexit. Considering I also had an independent and a Monster Raving Loony candidate standing against me, in most normal elections, they would have split the anti-Tory vote and my ward would have returned two Conservative councillors. Yet these are not normal times for the party.
Grassroots members must be entrusted with the party’s future now more so than the senior leadership. It is encouraging to see associations electing media officers to manage their public relations strategies. My Green rival began her career as a town councillor, and she was very effective at distributing a newsletter to residents frequently, as well as Christmas cards. Sadly, my former co-councillor would not have supported this idea if I proposed it because their attitude was ‘residents can come to me if they have a problem. They know where I am.’ Again, this signifies the complacency among older Tory councillors about their support in a ‘safe’ ward. And it is this attitude that needs to change.
All the Tory Shires need to be treated like marginals in the future, and this is where the grassroots members can play a substantial part and curb CCHQ’s influence, which will always provide support to candidates in marginal seats. The truth is, this year’s local elections prove that every single seat is marginal now. The new association media officers must encourage every Conservative councillor to have a Facebook page that they update regularly. This will enable them to reach out to people that traditional forms of communication will not allow them to do. They should create WhatsApp groups for main roads in their wards so that if there is an issue, they can act on it immediately. And for those residents who do not have social media, every councillor must be forced to produce a minimum of one newsletter a year. Councillors need to make themselves more visible and not take their voters for granted. They can build up the support MPs need to win elections.
And of course, the biggest reason many councillors lost their seats is because of the party’s failure to deliver Brexit. Once this issue is dealt with, many councillors will win back their seats and the days of protest voting will end. Theresa May is the Tories’ biggest hinderance, and a new leader who supports the opportunities leaving the EU will provide for this country will improve our electoral prospects. But if the party is to win elections in the future, it needs the predominantly Eurosceptic membership to do so. CCHQ’s purge of members applying to become MPs who oppose the Withdrawal Agreement creates a dictatorial culture whereby members suffer for exercising their convictions. Threatening to withdraw funds from marginal seats where candidates oppose the Withdrawal Agreement is fundamentally wrong. The Conservative Party has always been a broad church and a tolerance of different opinions must be encouraged. The grassroots must be encouraged to stay, and they know how to run campaigns and associations better than CCHQ. CCHQ’s power should either be curbed, or it should be scrapped altogether.
The Conservative Party is still the most undemocratic party in British politics. Its MPs decide which two out of five leadership candidates should be nominated before members vote for them. Considering no other party has these rules, there is more incentive for people to join other parties as opposed to the Tories. Prior to William Hague’s stint as leader, members could not vote for the leader at all. There is little incentive to join the Tories for this reason. I am not proposing Nando’s discounts for members, but if the grassroots are denied the chance to shape the party’s future, what is the point of being a member? This rule needs to change. If members had more influence, the Conservatives might be able to produce more ‘conservative’ leaders and win more elections like it did under Margaret Thatcher.
The biggest demonstration of May’s lack of respect for activists came at this year’s Conservative Spring Forum in Oxford. Many members, I included, voted for a National Conservative Convention motion to ensure the Tory leadership commit themselves to:
- taking Britain out of the EU by March 29th
-that no deal is kept on the table
-that the referendum result is respected
-that the UK does not participate in the European elections
-that no second referendum happens
Apart from a second referendum, the Prime Minister has completely ignored this motion. Furthermore, I witnessed a CCHQ employee filming the vote. They were sent there by Brandon Lewis, showing the leadership’s contempt for its members. Perhaps if they could vote for the leader without MPs deciding who they should vote for, CCHQ might be more reluctant to treat its members which such despair.
As disappointed as I am by my election defeat, it is also an opportunity for myself, my association and the whole of the Conservative Party to reflect on what went wrong. The solutions to this problem are clear: deliver Brexit, elect a new leader and allow members to take control of the party’s destiny at a local and national level. It’s time to end CCHQ’s dictatorial control of the party and allow members the freedom to express their views without fear of deselection. The European elections will be a bloodbath for the Conservatives this month, and until it learns its lesson, many more defeats like mine will happen in the future.
Matt Snape is a freelance journalist whose stories have been featured in numerous national, local and specialist publications
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